Ironmen are like the elderly.
No, hold on, this will make sense.
They have both been through a lot whether it be 80 years or 140 miles. Both groups have a lot less movement in their body than when they started their journey. Both have been through so much that when they say something so out of left field, you just have to smile, nod, and push them on.
So that's why when an Ironman, at 10 p.m. after competing for over 12 hours, asks a volunteer if they will have new pairs of feet at the finish line for the competitors, the best response is a hearty chuckle, a smile, and a cup of water.
That's just one instance of an dyadic interaction during the Ironman that shows how trying a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run can be on a person.
Unfortunately, while interactions like the previously mentioned one end up with smiles and a finisher, there are many that end with an individual breaking down both physically and emotionally upon realizing that they can't go any further and they just can't finish. Some of these people have family with them by their side. Some are alone having traveled to Louisville just for the race.
I heard some people say that it's a shame that a competitor had to quit. Quit is a harsh term. I prefer the term "can't move anymore because their muscles and bones can't take another step." There are no quitters at Ironman Louisville.
There's daughters cheering on fathers, husbands cheering on wives, high school classmates cheering on each other. The moment when a support group locates their friend or family member is one of intense emotion. You can smile. You can cry. There is no feeling like that one--to see an individual you love so dearly drive themself through so much pain even though it brings them so much happiness.
Oh, and then there's the finish line. If you are prone to tears, don't go near the finish line near midnight.
The rules state the if an individual does not cross the finish line before midnight, they are not officially an Ironman and cannot be recognized or announced as such.
The relationship that is most beautiful to see is a stranger cheering on an athlete. Whether it's a volunteer or a spectator, empathy abounds. This is especially evident as the clock is about to strike 12.
Empathy is so strong because the competitors are in no way professionals. Those men and women finished hours ago. They are cheering for the 65-year-old woman who uses all the energy she has left to raise her triumphant arms above her frail body to signal completion. They cheer for the stocky middle-aged gentlemen who has left so much on the course, he stumbles just after the finish line and can't get back up without assistance.
We can look at the Ironman as a race, a test of pure athletic skill. But in the eyes of this writer, the real treasure in the Ironman are the stories you can see flowing from the slower competitors as quickly as the sweat is flowing from their pours. I'm talking about the people who will tear at your heart strings as they go by.
I'm talking about the young man who gallops past the aid station because his muscles are so tight in one leg, the man who is walking the marathon because his right arm is in a sling from a bike injury in the race, or the woman who shuffles through the end of the course sobbing because she knows she did it.
They did it.
Through the blood, sweat, and tears they all did it.
Cover photo courtesy of Ironman Louisville